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Senate Homeland chair vents Mueller probe is preventing panel from receiving oversight answers

Senate Homeland chair vents Mueller probe is preventing panel from receiving oversight answers
© Greg Nash

The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday vented that special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE's probe has prevented his panel from receiving answers on outstanding oversight questions, pointing to documents related to the FBI’s decisionmaking during the 2016 election.

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGOP senator seeking information on FBI dealings with Bruce Ohr, former DOJ lawyer Election Countdown: O'Rourke brings in massive M haul | Deal on judges lets senators return to the trail | Hurricane puts Florida candidates in the spotlight | Adelson spending big to save GOP in midterms Senate Homeland chair vents Mueller probe is preventing panel from receiving oversight answers MORE (R-Wis.) told FBI Director Christopher Wray that he has been “very restrained” in his quest to view key — and highly sensitive — documents during a committee hearing. 

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Johnson particularly pointed to the surveillance warrant application the FBI used to wiretap former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, forms filled out by FBI agents regarding their conversations with Department of Justice (DOJ) official Bruce Ohr known as "302s", and the so-called McCabe memos.

The New York Times reported last month that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabeAndrew George McCabeRod Rosenstein has no conflict FBI investigated media leak of McCabe comment about Flynn and Trump Clinton's security clearance withdrawn at her request MORE reportedly wrote contemporaneous memos in which he documented Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinConservatives fume over format of upcoming Rosenstein interview Papadopoulos set to testify before House lawmakers Rod Rosenstein has no conflict MORE telling other officials he wanted to wear a wire when talking to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report Trump to nominate former Monsanto exec to top Interior position White House aides hadn’t heard of Trump's new tax cut: report MORE, following the firing of FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyConservatives fume over format of upcoming Rosenstein interview Former FBI lawyer speaks with House lawmakers on Rosenstein, 2016 Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure MORE.

The story also said Rosenstein, the No. 2 DOJ official, discussed the possibility last year of Cabinet officials invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. Rosenstein and the DOJ have fiercely disputed the report.

When Johnson asked whether the committee will be able to review the memo, Wray said he will “have to get back to you on that.” He specifically pointed to the "ongoing special counsel investigation," which Rosenstein is overseeing.

“That is always the problem, which is one of the reasons I do not agree with the special counsel at this point of time. It prevents the people’s house … from getting to the truth and holding people accountable,” Johnson interjected.

“It has held up — I’ve been doing this job for four years as chairman and every time there is a criminal investigation, Congress can’t get information — so the American people can’t get information,” he said.

Johnson pointed to five letters that he has sent the FBI, which he said have yet to receive adequate responses. He said three letters received parsed responses and two received no response. The chairman noted that unlike some House committees which are also seeking these classified materials, he has not asked the bureau to turn over 1.2 million documents.

Wray conceded that he wants to do a better job of producing documents, while also citing the “many oversight requests” the bureau has received from different congressional committees.

The FBI chief also defended not “ripping off the bandaid” and releasing these highly sensitive documents for review.

“I think the topics that we are talking about are extremely sensitive intelligence operations. I understand the attraction of the rip-off-the-band-aid approach, but I also understand that in many cases we are talking about foreign partner relationships, tradecraft and all kinds of other things that we need to be very careful about protecting,” Wray said.

His defense of protecting these materials comes after Trump initially authorized a series of classified Russia-probe related documents to be released last month. He later walked back the release, citing “key allies” who have expressed concerns about releasing documents such as the Page surveillance application. Trump announced the delay, tweeting that the Justice Department’s inspector general is reviewing the classified documents, while also warning that he could declassify the documents unilaterally "if it proves necessary."

Other GOP lawmakers also pressed Wray on surveillance.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulPaul to Saudi government: 'It takes a lot of damn gall' to lecture US Congress raises pressure on Saudi Arabia The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump says he is cutting foreign aid over caravan | Lawmakers point fingers at Saudi crown prince | DNC chair downplays 'blue wave' talk MORE (R-Ky.) took to Twitter to say that Wray would not answer a question about whether intelligence agencies like the FBI and NSA are listening in on Trump’s conversations.

“I asked [Wray] if @realDonaldTrump phone conversations are getting collected in the FISA database. He wouldn't answer. Is NSA or FBI listening in on our President? We know bad actors exist within intel community. REFORM NEEDED NOW,” Paul tweeted shortly after the hearing, referring to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) database.

But Paul’s attempts to get Wray to answer the question go against the FBI practice of neither confirming nor denying such activities.

"I'm not sure there's anything I could speak to in this setting,” Wray responded to Paul’s questions about Trump calls.

The FBI typically does not confirm or deny many of its activities such as open investigations or using sensitive surveillance practices. Doing so would create a scenario where the bureau denied some practices but not others.